Shortly after 8am on Monday a caravan of approximately 50 cars unleashed a volley of honks on a wide, tree-lined block of McDonald Avenue in Santa Rosa.
The protesters, organized by the North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP) as part of Sonoma County United in Crisis, called on District 3 Supervisor Shirlee Zane and District 4 Supervisor David Rabbitt to support stronger eviction protections for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis.
Two caravans—one in Santa Rosa in front of Zane’s home and the other in Petaluma in front of Rabbitt’s home—descended at the same time, with participants livestreaming on Facebook.
The supervisors passed the county’s current moratorium in March with a promise to reconsider the issue at a June 2 meeting. Zane and Rabbitt were selected because NBOP felt the two are most likely to oppose changes to the current moratorium.
NBOP argues that the current moratorium leaves thousands of county residents at risk of eviction if they cannot pay off accrued rent debt after the moratorium expires, 90 days after the Covid-19 pandemic is declared over.
The organizers of the Monday-morning protest called on the supervisors to extend the moratorium on Covid-19-related evictions to one year after the crisis and expand the moratorium to ban all evictions, not just those directly tied to Covid-19. They also called on the supervisors to ban late fees, rent increases and remove a requirement in the current ordinance requiring tenants to provide documentation proving a loss of income.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss many of the changes NBOP advocated for at a meeting on Tuesday, June 2.
Sarah Casmith and Rio Molina, NBOP housing organizers, addressed Zane through a portable speaker after the honking stopped.
Zane, standing in front of her house, told the protesters, “I’m on your side.”
“There should be no evictions during a pandemic ...” Zane said. “We have to extend the moratorium. We cannot afford to have one more homeless person …”
Asked whether she and the other supervisors would support extending the moratorium for a year or longer, Zane said, “I don’t want to answer a question—I don’t know at this point, but I will tell you that it needs to be extended at this point.”
Zane, who was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2008, lost a reelection bid in March to Chris Coursey, a former Mayor of Santa Rosa. Zane will leave office in January 2021.
In January, during Zane’s race against Coursey, the National Association of Realtors contributed $156,000 to an independent expenditure committee supporting Zane’s candidacy. By law, independent expenditure committees are not allowed to coordinate strategies with the candidates they support, but Zane’s critics say the contribution indicates that Zane’s sympathies lie with landlords and developers, not renters.
Landlord advocacy groups have argued that, if tenants do not pay rent, landlords, including mom-and-pops, will go out of business. Proposals that aim to solve the problem are being debated at all levels of government.
In April, Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced legislation that would cover landlord and mortgage holders’ missed rent payments if they promise to follow certain rules. More recently, the California Apartment Association, an industry group, has endorsed Senate Bill 1410, proposed state legislation that would set up a program to cover some landlords’ costs. It remains unclear how much funding the relief program proposed in SB 1410 would receive.
During her conversation with Casmith on Monday, Zane attempted to redirect from the eviction moratorium, saying that she has been an advocate for affordable housing during her time as a supervisor.
“I spent my whole career fighting for affordable housing and homelessness,” Zane told the protesters. “You guys should go talk to all of the white, middle-class NIMBYs that put their thumb on the Chanate project that would have brought 700 units of affordable housing... That’s why we’ve got more Latinos dying … because we have too many people living in a house and they get infected—it’s horrible. You’ve got to think about who your real enemy is. As long as white, entitled NIMBYs who think they shouldn’t have any apartments in their neighborhood …”
“Right now this is about evictions and people staying safe in their homes during a pandemic,” Casmith responded.
In a 2018 lawsuit, the Friends of Chanate argued that the county had not followed environmental-planning rules. In a ruling, a judge agreed with their reasoning and effectively halted the sale of the property.
A proposal by Chanate Community Development Partners, LLC called for up to 800 units with 20 percent of them designated for very-low-income households, according to a June 20, 2017 staff report presented to the Board of Supervisors.
After departing Zane’s house, the Santa Rosa caravan moved to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office a few miles away to call for the resignation of Sheriff Mark Essick following his announcement last Thursday that, beginning Monday, his office will only enforce the state Health Order, not the County Health Order. In his statement Thursday, Essick said that he was concerned about “inconsistent restrictions on business and personal activities” in the county order.
On Friday, after a morning meeting with elected leaders attempting to change Essick’s mind, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin told the Press Democrat that Essick had agreed to enforce the County Health Order.
The Sheriff’s Office responded by updating the Thursday night Facebook post: “Contrary to other reports the Sheriff is not reversing his position.”
More closed-door negotiations ensued on Friday afternoon while public confusion spread.
Finally, around 6pm, the Sheriff’s Office released another clarification to Facebook: “The Sheriff’s position stands and we will not be enforcing the County Health Order starting June 1.”
On Saturday, the Sheriff’s Office was the site of a daytime Black Lives Matter protest, after hundreds of people marched from Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa to the Sheriff’s Office a few miles north.
In a speech in front of the Sheriff’s headquarters on Monday morning, Leticia Romero, the president of NBOP’s board of directors, called on Essick to resign over his decision not to enforce the County Health Order.
“I feel the Sheriff’s decision pits white people and the business community against people of color,” Romero said in an interview afterwards, referring to concerns that the Sheriff’s decision would worsen the already disproportionately heavy impact of Covid-19 on Sonoma County’s Latinx residents.
“These tensions have existed in our community for a long time but they’re not always so blatant,” Romero added. “We can’t stay quiet when that happens.”